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• Data shows that as many as two-thirds of American high school graduates have underdeveloped reading skills, measured by common standards for their grade level.
• However, the people in this category are not so functionally illiterate that they cannot read a diploma, which requires far more basic skills than are considered when judging whether a student is reading on grade level.
• The estimate that such students account for half of high school graduates is wildly exaggerated, experts say.
During a discussion at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., criticized the educational attainment of the nation’s high schoolers.
"Half the kids in this country, when they graduate, can’t read their diploma," Tuberville said March 2.
When we looked at the data and checked with experts, we found that Tuberville’s claim is exaggerated. The vast majority of high school seniors have the most basic reading skills — what it would take to read a diploma — even if their reading test scores are considered subpar for their grade level.
When we contacted Tuberville’s office, a spokesperson shared data points the senator was relying on:
• 50% of U.S. adults are unable to read an eighth-grade level book.
• 46% of U.S. adults can’t understand labels on prescriptions.
• 66% of American 12th graders are rated "basic" or "below basic" in reading achievement.
• Only 37% of 12th graders reached or exceeded the academic preparedness benchmarks for both math and reading that would qualify them for entry-level college courses.
Independent experts said several (though not all) of these statistics are accurate — but they added that they don’t directly support Tuberville’s claim, which is more about functional literacy than about educational reading standards.
Tuberville’s first data point, about high school grads’ ability to read an eighth-grade level book, is dubious, despite being widely cited, such as in a 2016 Washington Post article.
Timothy Shanahan, founding director of the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Center for Literacy, told PolitiFact he cannot vouch for it. He said the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based think tank that has been cited as this statistic’s source, "doesn’t employ grade-level estimates like that, and it would be very hard to provide meaningful ones, which is why they don’t do it."
As for the statistic that 66% of American 12th graders are rated "basic" or "below basic" in reading achievement, the Education Department told PolitiFact in a statement that the 2019 figure was 63%, close to Tuberville’s number.
The Education Department also said the statistic that 37% of 12th graders would not qualify for entry-level college courses is accurate if it refers to a particular National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP) test that the National Assessment Governing Board has said can serve as a proxy for entry-level college work. Shanahan told PolitiFact that he agrees the statistic is trustworthy.
So, the statistics Tuberville’s office provided include several figures that are credible and one that is not. But experts said the problem with Tuberville’s claim is that none of these statistics support the idea that recent high school graduates cannot read their diplomas.
Reading a diploma is much less complicated than what the statistics Tuberville’s office cited are measuring. Failing to read at a "basic" 12th grade level doesn’t mean that you can’t read a diploma.
The "basic" standard for 12th graders under NAEP, which Tuberville’s office cited, involves several skills for reading "literary text such as fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction," including making inferences about an author’s purpose, a character’s motivations, or a text’s mood or themes. For nonfiction works, it means having the skills to infer the meanings of unknown words by context, to be able to support opinions with text evidence and to evaluate an author’s organization and effectiveness.
None of those skills would be necessary to read a diploma. Similarly, the inability to navigate an entry-level college course, as one of Tuberville’s cited statistics measured, does not mean that someone cannot read a diploma.
"There is often a fundamental misunderstanding of literacy attainment in the U.S.," Shanahan said. "Historically, illiteracy meant that a person couldn’t even write their own name — in other words, pretty much total illiteracy, no reading or writing ability at all."
But today, Shanahan said, a far smaller percentage than half or recent high school graduates fails to attain "basic literacy levels — the ability to read and understand simple messages. And one would assume a high school diploma would be a simple message."
There are exceptions, he said. These include people with severe sensory or cognitive deficits, and "teens and young adults who come into the U.S. with little schooling in their home countries." However, these wouldn’t fit into Tuberville’s category because "for the most part, these students aren’t attending U.S. schools, or are very briefly, meaning that they are not graduating from our high schools."
Shanahan said Tuberville may have a point that there are "a small number of American graduates who can’t successfully read simple messages. But he is badly mischaracterizing the state of literacy in the U.S."
Tuberville said, "Half the kids in this country, when they graduate, can’t read their diploma."
Data shows that as many as two-thirds of American high school graduates have underdeveloped reading skills, measured by common standards for their grade level.
But the people in this category are not so functionally illiterate that they cannot read a diploma, which requires far less skill than what grade-level assessments are testing.
Experts say the percentage of young Americans who are truly functionally illiterate is far smaller than 50%.
The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.
Tommy Tuberville, remarks at the CPAC Conference, March 2, 2023
Education Department, "NAEP Reading Achievement Levels by Grade," accessed March 16, 2023
Washington Post, "Hiding in plain sight: The adult literacy crisis," November 1, 2016
Email interview with Deborah Kennedy, executive director of the National Coalition for Literacy, March 7, 2023
Email interviews with Timothy Shanahan, founding director of the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Center for Literacy, March 3-4, 2023
Email interview with Cody Sargent, press secretary for Tommy Tuberville, March 2, 2023
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